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A painstaking study of the sex and love lives of three women confirms grim truths about desire and power. I n the introduction to Three WomenLisa Taddeo writes that to find the three characters whose sexual lives she portrays in detail she drove across the country six times. The country is the United States, the time the second decade of the new century.


Whilst this chapter will endeavour accurately to represent the concerns expressed, it will also look to capture broader insights and observations about how best to realise the talent of women in the workplace. Otherwise academic institutions will not only continue to squander talent but also become increasingly out of step with a society that is changing and modernising. There was ificant variance in the extent to which women saw their gender as relevant to them as they pursued their careers.

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There were many women who took up a place between these poles, seeing their gender as somewhat relevant some of the time. Others could be seen as moving along the spectrum, often stimulated by a change in life or job circumstances, or in response to aging. Most noticeable was the shift that took place when women became parents, which tended to move their gender from the background into sharp foreground focus.

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But it has sometimes been a case of feeling in a foreign country. Then it was fundamental.

Upbringing and schooling

On the other hand it is quite all right to behave like a woman in committees etc — after all, most men behave like men. The fact that a book is being written that focuses on women at Cambridge indicates a pre-existing bias on the question of relevance.

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The raw data around the lack of women moving up and through organisations, inhabiting leadership positions and securing appropriate recognition for their work le us to believe that gender needs to be looked at and cannot be totally irrelevant. Gender may not be the most important thing about a person or something they see as having influenced their own career trajectory. But it does not necessarily follow that gender is therefore irrelevant, or that it does not in some way affect how colleagues, or society more broadly, view women.

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There is no expectation that a reader should share this position — nor would all the women involved in this book. The comments and insights gathered here stand on their own merits and a reader can draw their own conclusions from them. People come to Cambridge having already been exposed to messages about their gender from their parents, schooling and wider society. This is of course true of both men and women.

The narratives and quotations in this book express a real range in the gender messages by which people were affected. These run the full gamut from hugely positive and empowering, right the way through to extremely inhibiting and undermining.

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Therefore it is important that not only all staff, but also all our students are trained in gender equality and best practice as soon as they arrive in our care. Some people talked about having parents who created an expectation that girls and women could do anything they set their minds to.

I have to thank my solid upbringing for this. Beyond parents, early formative experiences at school were also mentioned as having an effect on how women viewed the possibilities or limitations of their gender. Some women talked about having had inspirational teachers — both male and female — who saw their potential and pushed them to achieve.

We were not encouraged to plan ahead and map out careers as our male fellow students were. Once women ed the workplace, their sense of what was acceptable and unacceptable for them to be and do began to be shaped by their working environment and interactions with colleagues. When the women described their workplace experiences, there seemed to be a discrepancy between the behaviours that a man could demonstrate without negative consequence — and sometimes even exploit — and those seen as acceptable for women.

Outspokenness, assertion and even anger were ways of behaving that seemed to be judged differently when coming from a man.

What people told us—and what the data showed

For women, there was the risk of being seen as frightening, aggressive, strident or disruptive when holding a reasoned but determined position. There was reference to be being described as anything from shrill, stroppy and hysterical through to frivolous and chatty.

An absence of voice also related to the lack of female representation at certain levels and on particular bodies. Attached to frustrations around voice were comments about feelings of isolation and fears of tokenism when women found themselves to be a solitary female presence, or in a small minority. In this situation there is merit in querying the selection criteria used, challenging assumptions about the seniority level and background needed to sit on particular groups, as well as considering creative ways of spotting talented women at more junior levels and involving them at an earlier stage.

All of this offers the possibility of casting a wider net to engage broader groups of women in larger s, especially in the decision-making processes of an organisation. More broadly, there was irritation expressed at the reduced expectations and assumptions that the women had encountered during their working lives. Some talked about situations where it was automatically assumed they were the most junior person in a meeting, when the opposite was frequently true. Others talked about needing to fight against limiting beliefs relating to being both a parent and having a job — a problem we will discuss in more detail later.

On the most basic level, women we spoke to expressed the desire for a starting point where as much would be expected from and of them as from a male peer. Some women talked about having limiting traits that they saw as being associated with their gender — such as an innate conservatism, perfectionism, lack of self-confidence, risk aversion or an unwillingness to promote themselves or their achievements. It is important to note that a of women rejected the idea of gender-based traits outright and saw these instead as personality-based.

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It was noticeable how much context made a difference to the way women experienced the potential advantages, disadvantages or inificance of their gender. There was talk of progressive departments, excellent leadership, visible sponsorship and support from those senior to them.

The challenge to business leaders

All of these led to women feeling more able to bring their talent to the fore and be recognised for doing so. Being able to see a range of varied role models — including women — thriving in their discipline or area also provided a genuine basis on which to be positive about their prospects. Several women talked about feeling accepted and valued in one part of their working lives — perhaps in their team or research group — and far less so in others.

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However, male academics do occasionally treat me like a secretary, and industrialists and overseas scientists can exhibit some surprisingly unreconstructed attitudes. Some participants commented positively about progress made around gender equality, legislation and the educational opportunities available for girls and women. Despite some grounds for optimism, there was little sense of complacency or a feeling that parity had been achieved. Several women talked about the energy it took to challenge, cope with or defy the limiting assumptions attached to their gender.

This in itself offers a pressing reason for organisations to be passionately interested in inclusion, as there is a clear impact on performance. I probably could have done more with my life if I could have used all that time and effort for working, instead of justifying my existence. At their worst, gender assumptions manifest themselves as overt sexism or discrimination.

There were, however, specific examples of sexism, sexual harassment and explicit discrimination. These serve as a warning about the importance of robust organisational policies and procedures to identify and tackle sexism and discrimination when it occurs. The attitudes described in the paragraphs above were seen to play out in a range of practical ways. Given that men still hold the majority of leadership positions in the majority of organisations, they exercise ificant sway over the decisions and views that shape their workplaces.

All notions of merit are subjective, and organisations need to question how that subjectivity potentially affects who is seen as successful.

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A more inclusive definition of success starts to reshape workplaces by enabling them to identify and then reward a broader range of contributions from a more diverse group of individuals. These observations emphasise the importance of recognising that gender issues are organisational issues. Recruitment, promotion and performance are all leadership concerns and require leadership attention.

Framing the debate about gender

The patterns described here are also by no means exclusive to Cambridge, which as an institution reflects the society it is part of. It was very frustrating, but I concentrated on doing the best work I could and eventually people caught on. On an individual level, women described a range of responses to the blockers, assumptions and stereotyping they experienced.

Many chose to try to counter negative assumptions by concentrating on producing the highest standards of work. This paid dividends in some circumstances, but was insufficient to secure appropriate recognition in others.

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Some women looked to put themselves in the best possible position for advancement by diversifying their skills and seeking out opportunities to use them. Others, but perhaps too few, talked about the value of securing support from mentors and sponsors to help them navigate their careers. Many made use of good friendships and networks to provide individual support in handling situations, but fewer to connect with other women experiencing similar concerns or to mobilise broader demands for improvement.

There is no need to feel alone: many women in the University have had similar experiences. Several women in leadership positions had the authority, seniority and political awareness to be able to shape their college, department or discipline.

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They seemed to feel a personal responsibility for making a difference by improving the circumstances and opportunities for other women. Given that there are relatively few senior women in total, there was some mention of isolation, suggesting the value of creating more natural opportunities for them to collectively exchange insights and amplify their influence. So — lucky break? Although the women involved in the book talked about the assumptions and stereotyping that came with their gender, many also focused on the potential opportunities too.

Being conspicuous sometimes meant they were able to draw attention to their achievements, were noticed as a conference speaker and were invited to a particular group or committee. When this was allied with self-confidence, women talked about being able to bring a fresh perspective to a situation, meeting or problem. The non-linear career paths pursued by many women we spoke to also presented the potential for gathering more diverse experiences that in turn could positively affect the insights and contributions they were able to bring.

The challenge to women

They also talked about the resilience and flexibility that came with forging a career that deviated from a traditional norm. They were able to appreciate how much had shifted for women during their lifetime, whilst also seeing that more needed to be done. Whilst some women were uncomfortable with the notion that there were such things as typically female attributes, others claimed a perceived advantage around competencies like communication, collaboration and building relationships.

Whether linked to gender or not, these qualities clearly benefit organisations and are features of some of the most effective leaders. Beyond the workplace and how women engaged with it, the most frequently mentioned impact of gender was in relation to family life.

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There were examples of all sorts of different family models, encompassing divorce, being single, parenting of babies, teenagers and adult children, blended families, caring for elderly parents or siblings, late-in-life marriages — and many more. These family situations were also affected by other conditions such as high or lower incomes, job security or coming from another part of the world.

Unconscious psychological defenses and universal beliefs

Whilst it is important to acknowledge different family types, it is also true that the vast majority of comments made in this area related to the challenges and rewards of having both children and a career. The facts of childbearing, expectations about where the primary responsibility for childcare sits and the perceived viability of having a demanding job as well as being a mother — all had clear implications for women in their working lives. The challenges of combining parenting with a job have been touched on in the chapter in relation to work volume and handling competing commitments.

In addition, there was also specific mention of the sheer exhaustion of having very young children, the practical frustrations associated with breastfeeding, finding meeting places that allowed children and the eye-watering costs of childcare. These worries were accentuated by the fact that having children often coincided with crucial career junctures and promotion points.

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Not so, say the authors, who spent 18 months working with a global consulting firm that wanted to know why it had so few women in positions of power.


But the brutal demands of ambitious careers, the asymmetries of male-female relationships, and late-in-life child-bearing difficulties conspire against them.